Just days into the new school year, hundreds of D.C.-area students are in quarantine after potentially being exposed to the coronavirus.
The potential exposures highlight the challenges lawmakers, school officials, parents and students face in trying to ensure safe in-person learning in the midst of the pandemic. The highly contagious delta variant has made the task even more difficult, experts maintain.
“Having a layered plan, parents can really be able to respond,” said Keri Althoff, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “There’s going to be anxiety. There’s going to be concern. It is going to be disruptive.”
Most of the D.C. region is experiencing high community transmission, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but experts said the benefits of in-person learning far outweigh the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
With the school year underway, here are a few things parents can do to prepare for the possibility of exposure in school.
Understand the message
Schools are sending many different messages to parents about COVID-19 exposure, so understanding the message exactly is urgent before taking any next steps, Althoff said.
One message schools are using suggests a child has been deemed a “close contact,” while another describes “potential exposure.” Close contacts are urged to quarantine, while those exposed may just be asked to test and monitor symptoms, Althoff said.
Althoff also recommended parents familiarize themselves with school district requirements for testing. For some, an at-home, self-administered test may suffice, while others call for a negative PCR test. The recommendations could also be different based on vaccination status.
“If your child has had a close contact, you’re concerned about your child; you’re concerned about potentially other people in your household, and you’re concerned about what this means for the impact on your family,” Althoff said. “And for families, it’s not a small impact.”
Add at-home test kits to your medicine cabinet
In addition to items such as a thermometer, Althoff recommends buying an at-home COVID-19 testing kit to have in the cabinet before it’s needed.
A list of at-home tests that can be purchased without a prescription is available on the Food and Drug Administration’s website.
Dr. Matthew Laurens, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said getting a quick result could help prevent spread.
“There are instances where you would want to be able to diagnose someone quickly, without having to make an appointment or wait in line or wait the time period after the test would be run for PCR to result,” Laurens said. “So there’s definitely a place for the rapid tests in the cabinet.”
It’s also good to have a list of places where kids can be tested, Althoff said, in the event the at-home kits are sold out. Many sites offer free testing, she said.
Ensure kids know how to properly wear masks
While some masks could provide more protection than others, Althoff said, ensuring kids are wearing masks properly is the first step to preventing potential transmission. It’s also essential that kids know when it may be an appropriate time for them to take their masks off at school, she said, which teachers typically communicate.
Any masks students wear to school should be at least two layers, Laurens said, with one option being a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask.
“When we have a very transmissible form of SARS-CoV-2, like the delta variant, it makes sense to try for the extra layers of protection, like a tight-fitting mask versus a loose-fitting mask,” Laurens said. “If you can get a tighter-fitting mask, you’re going to reduce risk of transmission and risk of infection in your child.”
Communicate with your employer
If a student is exposed to COVID-19 in school or elsewhere, Althoff said, it’s important to communicate with work supervisors to discuss the possibility of working remotely.
“Talk to your employer about what kind of time is available to take off,” she said. “Because depending on your child’s care needs and level of illness, you may not be able to immediately switch to an at-home work environment and take care of a child who is in quarantine or isolation.”
Know what questions to ask
With teachers and students back in classrooms, Laurens said, parents should consider what questions to ask about COVID-19 protocol.
At the top of the list, he said, are questions about vaccination requirements for teachers and plans for distancing in classrooms and other places where students congregate.
“And what is their policy for kids to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID?” he said. “And how (will) testing be fed back to the school in terms of results, and other parents whose children might be affected should that child test positive?”
Returning to in-person learning can be stressful, Laurens said, but that structure is the best strategy for students to prevent learning loss.
Ideally, according to Althoff, students who have to quarantine would be able to attend classes remotely to ensure they don’t fall behind.
“It still is a moment where you’ve got to hang in there,” Althoff said. “Being as prepared as you can will help to ease some of that tension.”